Most recently I was invited to a whisky tasting by a client of mine. He figured out that I blog and was keen for me to cover his whisky. I knew about their project for a while but since I rarely drink any hard liquor besides gin and the occasional grappa with my dad I had not thought about covering it. However, I was excited to try.
So, my client set up a meeting for Food and Chatter with Michael Miles. Michael is the owner and director of Dragon Brands which is the distributor Wolfburn is using here in South Africa and he offers his expertise to newbies like myself or more knowledgeable whisky drinkers for tasting at the Bascule Bar at the Cape Grace.
So, on a random Tuesday we made our way to the waterfront and met up with him. The Bascule itself is one of the best places to taste whisky in Cape Town. It lays on the water’s edge of the international yacht marina on Cape Town’s Waterfront and it offers a little over 500 whiskies from around the world and an impressive selection of the finest Cape wines. The ambient is cozy and you can imagine fancy dressed men smoking cigars after dinner accompanied by their favourite poison.
Michael had set the table for the tasting and asked us to join him. On the table, there were two whiskies that we would be able to enjoy today. The Wolfburn Aurora and Wolfburn Northland. As I know very little about whisky I asked Michael to gently introduce us to the topic. He chose to share the story behind Wolfburn which is quite beautiful.
In 1821 William Smith founded the distillery Wolfburn on the outskirts of Thurso, Caithness – Scotland. The name comes from the Scottish word “burn” which stands for stream or small river. The distillery grew and became quickly one of the biggest producers of malt whisky in Caithness. The Wolfburn logo is taken from a drawing by Konrad Gesner of a mystical sea-wolf creature that is said to bring luck to those who are fortunate to see it. As the distillery lays only a short walk along the burn from the old site towards the sea this is quite fitting.
The Wolfburn distillery was brought back to life in early 2013 by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about whisky . It’s a small distillery that concentrates on quality over quantity.
Michael proceeds to explain how single malt whisky is made. Barley, water and time are the main ingredients. The production of whisky is comparably easy. You let the barley germinate until the starch of the grain has become malt sugar. The malt is then dried and coarsely ground. The sugar is extracted by adding hot water, and the resulting liquid is then left to ferment, producing a beer without the addition of hops. This beer is then distilled twice in copper pot stills. The spirit is then matured in oak casks for at least three years. High-class single malt whiskies are sometimes matured for decades.
Wolfburn does add a little bit more time for the germination and the distillation process which results in a better taste.
At this point, Michael does let us taste a bit of freshly made spirit before the maturing process of the whisky in the barrels has started. He waters it down and asks us to carefully try. As expected it is quite a burn and tastes rather malty.
He then proceeds to add some Wolfburn Northland to our glasses. whisky tasting is done by opening your mouth ever so slightly and to take a nose. The rather overpowering malty but fruity smell of the light colour whisky hits my senses. I imagine Scotland and it’s rough but stunning countryside. Having lived there for quite a while helps to fully emerge myself.
We then go ahead and have a tiny sip. The strong and immediate bite of the whisky hits my tongue and I try to let it linger as recommended by Michael. As I am a whisky virgin I leave the proper description of the taste to Shane Fraser who is the brain behind this whisky:
“On the nose, you’ll find fruit and malty aromas, with just a hint of peat. On the tongue, sweet and nutty flavours are present, which coat the palate to leave a very slight pleasant flavour of smoke.”
Michael then adds a little bit of water which is supposed to “release the dragon”. The fatty acids of the whisky are stirred up by the water and the sense of taste is now much stronger but the bite lessened. We can taste the hint of peat.
Peat – for those who don’t know, which included me – is an organic material found in marshy or damp regions which is composed of partially decayed vegetable matter. It is cut and dried for use as fuel and it has a distinct smell that clings to everything it touches. It is used to germinate the grain and will remain in the whisky for years after.
Now peat is not used in the production of the Wolfburn Northland but the creators managed to obtain American oak quarter casks which contained peated whisky . This results in a hint of peat in the Wolfburn Northland whisky. Michael even burns some peat for us so we get to experience the smell.
Next up is the Wolfburn Aurora. The colour is much darker due to the whisky having matured in American oak and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. We take a nose and it becomes immediately my favourite from the two options. Again, I find Shane’s words a bit more descriptive:
“On the nose, you’ll sense sherry sweetness accompanied by dried fruits and malt. On the palate, there’s a warmth imparted from the sherry, augmented by autumn fruits and nutty flavours, with a hint of spice in the background – wonderfully smooth and mellow.”
The flavours hit my tongue and I definitely enjoy the golden liquid. Again, Michael adds water but this time I feel that the process takes away from the smooth and warming taste. I am surprised as I expected that I would have liked it better after “releasing the dragon”.
The conversation with Michael is easy and to say the least very educational. I listen as Kitty keeps asking questions about Michael, whisky and the Bascule. He ends up getting us extremely hungry as he proposes that the combination of a good whisky and sushi is mind blowing. I believe him on the spot and guess what we ended up eating right after the tasting…?
If you are a whisky or wine lover we highly recommend an evening with Michael at the Bascule as we had so much fun! He does offer big tastings for groups and can be reached via the Bascule.